Thanks once again everyone for all your reviews and comments! They're very much appreciated.
We're nearing the end of the story now; just six chapters left to go...
Today's chapter title comes from John Lennon.
MOTHER, YOU HAD ME BUT I NEVER HAD YOU
Erik spine stiffened as soon as he saw Angelique.
"It looks like she caught the train," Christine observed, laying a hand on his back in an attempt to reassure him. His mother was wearing the same old-fashioned black dress, faded and a little shabby, that she had seen both at the wedding and when she encountered the older woman in the street; heavily veiled once more, Angelique carried a net bag and a tightly-rolled umbrella, a plain woollen shawl draped across her shoulders. "I don't think she has much money; perhaps we should offer to pay for a cab to take her home."
"Perhaps." Erik pulled away, obviously trying not to clench his hands into fists. "I would rather see how this dinner engagement turns out before I commit myself to anything."
The doorbell rang, and it was all Christine could do to stop herself rushing to answer it. She listened as Chloe welcomed their visitor; it felt strange to have someone else performing such tasks in her house. Erik shifted impatiently from foot to foot, tapping his fingers on the mantelpiece as though fervently wishing the next few hours were already over; Christine knew that he was beginning to regret the offer made on impulse the previous evening, and suspected he was only still going along with it for her sake.
"Monsieur, Madame," Chloe announced, suddenly there on the threshold. She bobbed a curtsy, and stepped aside to allow Angelique into the room. "Madame Claudin."
"Thank you, Chloe," Erik said, and the maid withdrew, quietly closing the door behind her. He gave a small smile, one that even from the angle at which she was standing and partly obscured by his mask Christine could tell was mostly forced. "Good afternoon, Madame."
Angelique returned the smile with an equally hesitant one of her own. It was clear that she was treading carefully around this strange relationship, whether from a natural reticence, a cold manner or just through guilt Christine couldn't tell; whatever the reason, she was grateful for it. Such an awkward situation needed careful handling. "Hello, Erik. Christine, I hope you are feeling a little better today?" Angelique asked, turning to her daughter-in-law with a face creased in what appeared to be genuine concern.
"Yes, thank you. A proper night's sleep can work wonders," Christine replied, drawing upon the actress within her and injecting her voice with what she hoped sounded like natural cheerfulness.
The older woman's smile widened, and for a moment she lost her severe aspect. "I am very glad to hear it." She folded her hands in front of her and they all stood there uncertainly for several moments before Christine belatedly recalled her duties as a hostess and ushered her mother-in-law towards the sofa; Angelique nodded in thanks, settling herself amongst the cushions. "This is a certainly a delightful house," she remarked, taking a long look around the room, at the paintings of flowers that Christine had picked up in a little second-hand shop in town, the Chinese rug before the fireplace and the wedding photograph set in pride of place on the mantel. "Charles used to design places just like this. Did you have a hand in it, Erik? Christine mentioned that you had been working as an architect; your father would have been so proud."
Erik looked surprised, but he covered it well. "Sadly, no," he said. "The majority of my commissions have been outside France, and I gave up architecture quite some time ago. Perhaps one day I may have time again, but until now any designs that might pop into my head have to be the dabblings of a dilettante, squeezed in around my other business."
"Erik is a published composer," Christine told her mother-in-law proudly. "He has several very popular tunes and a ballet to his name, and I believe he may soon begin working on an opera."
"The ballet was a collaboration," Erik corrected, colouring slightly at being so praised in front of the person he had always striven, without success, to impress during his formative years. "And the opera will have to wait until I decide upon a suitable subject."
"How wonderful," Angelique declared, clapping her hands together in a sudden rush of enthusiasm that made her for a moment look much younger. "You must get your artistic temperament from your father's side of the family; I know that mine were never interested in music."
"Did you not tell Meg that you wanted to be a ballerina?" Christine asked, and the older woman smiled ruefully.
"For a few weeks after I was taken to see a production of Pygmalion by an aunt and uncle as a treat," she said. "My father was quick to disabuse me of any notions I might have had of taking to the stage. He believed it to be beneath my dignity, as well as a potential assault upon my chastity; he did not approve of the theatre at all, calling it a godless temple of Bacchanalia. He never allowed me to set foot in one again; unfortunately he was a very pious and narrow-minded man."
"I can see that he obviously had an influence upon you," Erik muttered bitterly.
"As an unmarried daughter I had little choice but to obey him," his mother snapped. "Especially when my mother died young; he was all I had until I met your father, so is it any wonder that I was affected by the most important person in my life?"
"It strikes me as a shame you were too blind to see the parallels that developed between your behaviour and his," he retorted.
"It is difficult to understand the world when you have been raised by a domineering father and schooled by nuns. Religion was the only constant in my life; can you blame me for clinging to it?"
"When such slavish devotion resulted in the torture of your own flesh and blood, yes, I can!" Erik snarled, stalking to the window and turning his back on her. "I still bear the scars!"
Angelique glanced at Christine for support, but there was nothing in this instance that Christine could say. There was no denying what had taken place, and that it had been Angelique's decision; she could blame no one else for what she had done to her son. To have tormented a small child so, actually believing him to be possessed by evil spirits... Christine could think of no excuses for such behaviour. With a sigh, Angelique stood and approached Erik, slowly as though trying to get close to a wild animal. He was shaking, and rested a hand on the window frame to steady himself.
"I am truly sorry for what I did," she said quietly. "As I told you yesterday, could I turn back the clock and change things I would, but I do not have the power to alter the past. I made appalling, unforgiveable mistakes; I should never have married and had a child when I was barely a woman myself, I know that now. But when I look at you, and see the fine, truly incredible man you have grown up to be I am glad that I gave life to you, even if I can barely believe that you are mine, for you have become that person in spite of my mistakes. You have proved me wrong at every turn."
Erik stared straight ahead; Christine did not think he was watching the traffic as it meandered up and down the street. "It has taken me a very long time to reach this point," he murmured. "You would not wish to hear the horror stories of my life before I met Christine; your influence over me lingered for many years." At last he turned his head, fixing her with his unsettling gaze. "Tell me, why have your views changed so much? You gave me a mask as my first piece of clothing; how is it that you can now bring yourself to look upon my face without revulsion?"
"You were six months old before I even considered the idea of a mask; until then the wet nurse draped a corner of the blanket over the... distorted side of your face whenever you were in my presence. I am ashamed to say that I was not with you often during that time. I told your father of my intentions but he begged me to wait until you were old enough to run about the house, saying that I would not have to look at you until then if I chose." Angelique looked at the floor, biting her lip. Her hands twisted in her rusty silk skirts. "For my sins I decided that I could not tolerate having you even in the same room; my nerves were not good and I could not deal with the natural boisterousness of a child so I gave orders that you were to be confined to the attic bedroom, out of my sight. I was like a wicked stepmother in a fairytale, but, God forgive me, I was meeting out such punishments upon my own child!" Her voice cracked, and Christine, unable to watch another soul in distress, jumped up.
"Come and sit down," she said softly, taking the older woman by the arm and guiding her back to her seat. Angelique thanked her, fumbling in her pocket for a handkerchief, and Christine went to the decanter on the sideboard to pour a glass of sherry.
"Be careful," she told Erik as she passed him; he was watching his mother dispassionately, but she could not tell whether he truly felt that way or if it was just another of those figurative masks he wore in addition to the real one. "I think all these years alone have broken her."
He pursed his lips. "In that case, she will have some idea of my sufferings."
"You are in a position of power; you can be merciful if you choose," Christine reminded him, squeezing his arm. "She is an old lady, coming to the end of her life. I know you are capable of compassion; please don't prove me wrong."
She took Angelique the drink and her mother-in-law accepted it gratefully, a few sips aiding her in regaining her composure somewhat. "You are right to censure me," she said, putting the almost empty glass aside. "Experience can change a person, however, as I am sure you have discovered. Were you in Paris during the Siege?" Erik nodded but did not elaborate. Christine did not blame him; how could he explain that he had been working on and living beneath the partially-constructed Opera House at the time? "I travelled from Rouen after my father's death. When Charles left me I had nowhere else to go, and my father knew it; he took great delight in reminding me of my sins by using me as an unpaid nurse and housekeeper, at his beck and call every hour of the day. I finally escaped after an apoplectic stroke took him one night; there was a little money, but not enough to live upon and so I made up my mind to take holy orders. I reasoned that by devoting what remained of my life to God I might somehow be able to make reparation for my sins.
"When it came down to it, however, I was unable to take my vows. I confessed to the priest that I felt myself too tainted by my previous life; he assured me that God would forgive me whatever I had done, that I would find my calling and my strength in time but alas, that day has yet to come. The nuns have been kind enough to allow me to worship with them and aid them as a lay sister, and I have been occupying a little cottage in their grounds for some years, taking in mending so I can offer them some payment. I was there when the Prussians laid siege to the city, and we acted as a hospital, caring for the wounded and burying those whose injuries were beyond help. Your ability to feel revulsion soon dissipates when you have seen some of the things I did during that dreadful time," Angelique said, raising her head and looking straight at her son. "In many ways I was still very naive but I grew up very quickly; I discovered that appearances cease to become important when you have held the hand of a man so burned his features have all but melted away, or comforted another who has had half his face shot off. Unfortunate accidents of nature no longer have their power to shock, and for perhaps the first time I truly began to consider my actions of long ago and their likely consequences. I looked deep into my own soul and I was disgusted with what I found."
Erik said nothing, his visible features blank. She sat forwards on the sofa, almost but not quite reaching for him.
"I want to make amends, Erik, I swear it to you. Will you let me? Will you at least let me try?"
For a long time he was silent, and she slumped back, her shoulders drooping in defeat. His answer, when it came, was barely more than a breath:
"The snake charmer; why did you send it?" Erik enquired towards the end of dinner, swirling the burgundy around in his wine glass. He had touched little of his food as usual, and Christine guiltily caught his eye as she pushed her own almost-full plate away from her.
Angelique appeared to be the only one with any appetite, complimenting Chloe upon her cooking skills. "I suppose I just wanted to reach out to you in some way," she said. "I know it was probably wrong of me to wish to do so; I should have contented myself with the telegram but once I saw you again I was unable to help myself. One thing led to another and..."
"And you decided to approach Christine. Would it not have been easier to simply write a letter instead of using all this subterfuge? Anonymous telegrams, having your minions break into my house - " He broke off as she stared at him in consternation.
"When did they break in? I gave Robert strict instructions to leave the musical box on the doorstep! There was to be no criminal damage!" Angelique's fingers curled tightly around her knife and her mouth set in a stern line. "I will have words with that young man when I next see him."
"To be fair, there was no real damage," Christine said, trying to smooth things over.
Erik grunted. "If you don't count the plants they trampled when they made a swift departure over the garden wall."
"The back door must have been open; they left the snake charmer on the mat."
Angelique turned her gaze to the napkin, one of Madame Giry's, spread across her lap. "I suppose seeing it again must have been something of a shock."
Taking a mouthful of wine Erik smiled thinly. "You have a talent for understatement, Mother." She looked at him in surprise; he had hardly called her by that name since they were reunited, and only then in a tone of freezing sarcasm; even he appeared confused that he had done so. He took another swig of the burgundy to compose himself. "It damn near gave me a heart attack."
Christine felt another, deeper, twinge of guilt, but she concentrated on gathering up the plates. Chloe, obviously possessed of some sort of sixth sense where domestic matters were concerned, appeared at that moment and the conversation died away as the table was cleared. No one had any taste for dessert, and there was silence for a while once the coffee was brought in. Eventually Erik asked,
"Why did you keep it all these years? I thought it destroyed."
"I kept all your things," Angelique told him, and his eyebrow rose. "They are still in the box I used to take them from the house after your father left."
"There must be pitiful slim pickings amongst them. You never allowed me much," he said, getting up to pour himself a brandy.
"It was cruel of me," she admitted miserably. "Heartless. Your father tried to make up for it - "
"Until he decided to deny me as well."
"I cannot speak for him, or understand his motives. I can only believe that was the drink talking." Angelique gave him a pointed glance as he raised the crystal snifter to his lips. "He never laid a hand on you before the bottle began to rule him."
Erik knocked back the brandy in a gulp and refilled the glass. Christine watched him carefully; he was not usually one to drink intemperately and she did not want him to start now. However, he did not touch the new glass, instead setting it down on the table and resuming his seat, resting his hand a good six inches away. His fingers traced a pattern on the tablecloth. "In your little box of happy memories, did you keep the tin whistle Jacinta gave me? I am sure you would recognise it; you crushed it rather comprehensively beneath your foot."
"Oh, dear Lord..." Angelique's eyes closed and she shuddered, as though in pain. Her fingers gripped the edge of the table almost convulsively. "I had tried to forget that day."
"Perhaps you will do me the honour of trying to remember," Erik said sharply. "I would be interested to know why you deemed it necessary to destroy the only gift I had ever been given. It was an innocent gesture, meant purely to inject some pleasure into my miserable life."
"Erik - " Christine began, but he ignored her.
"Why did you do it? Was it an impulse born of some perverted jealousy because I had something you did not?" he demanded, his voice rising in both pitch and volume. "Or did you just desire to make my existence even more wretched than it already was?"
"I don't know!" Angelique cried. "Don't you think I've asked myself that over and over all these years? Yes, I was jealous; of the love that woman was able to give you when I could not! She made you laugh, and I couldn't stand listening to the two of you together. I have hated myself for it; must you punish me further? I..." Her breathing suddenly became laboured and she bent over the table, her knuckles almost as white as the cloth that covered it. There was a sheen of sweat on her forehead and her features contracted in a grimace as she pressed one hand to her breast. Concerned, Christine motioned to Erik to pour a glass of water for his mother; Angelique accepted it with a terse nod, spilling some as she attempted to take a sip. Much to Christine's surprise, he actually held the glass steady for her, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder, though he moved quickly away as soon as she had recovered enough to sit up straight once more.
"Would you like us to call a doctor?" Christine asked, but the older woman shook her head.
"Thank you, but there would be little use. I have been told by two physicians that there is nothing more to be done," she said. "It is... bearable. Some days are worse than others but I am learning to take each as it comes."
There was a frown creasing the visible side of Erik's forehead. "Who were these men? Are they respected professionals?"
Angelique smiled slightly. "In my situation, I accept whatever treatment I can afford. You need not worry for me, Erik; I will be out of your life again soon enough."
There was little anyone could say in answer to such a statement. Erik fell into brooding silence, staring at his brandy glass; Christine, unable to stomach the bitter taste of the coffee, began to place the cups and saucers back on the tray and, balancing them carefully, excused herself to return them to the kitchen, suddenly desperate to escape for a moment from the tension in the air. Chloe was up to her elbows in suds, singing to herself as she finished the washing up, and almost jumped when she realised her mistress had entered the room.
"Oh, Madame, you startled me!" she said, and Bruno leapt from his basket in the corner to sniff around Christine's skirts. "I heard shouting; is everything all right?"
"I hope so," Christine replied, crouching to give the spaniel a belly rub when he rolled expectantly onto his back. "Just at the moment it's rather hard to say."
"I won't pry," the maid told her. She found a tea towel and dried her hands. "I do hope that there was nothing wrong with the food? It was my mother's recipe for coq au vin and I've never had any complaints but I did notice that most of it was sent back..."
"Oh, no, no, it was delicious," Christine assured her. "You must forgive us, Chloe; my stomach is a little delicate at the moment and I find it hard enough to make Erik eat at the best of times."
Chloe frowned. "That's never good for a man, especially one of his size. He should be twice the weight he is now, if you don't mind my saying so, Madame," she added, blushing as she evidently realised how forward she was being.
"Oh, I don't mind at all," Christine said, laughing. "You mustn't stand on ceremony with me, Chloe; I've never had a maid before, and I'm no better than you are, honestly. I hope we can be friends; if things turned out differently it could easily have been me doing your job."
"It's very kind of you to say so, Madame." Chloe's face was still a rather bright shade of pink but she smiled. "Perhaps you would prefer something light at suppertime; a little chicken broth, perhaps? I can boil up the carcass to make stock. It may help to settle your stomach."
"Thank you, that is very thoughtful. I will try and make Erik eat some, too." Christine sighed. "I suppose I had better go back; though I hate to say it, there are times when I find myself glad I have no family."
She felt a little light-headed by the time she reached the top of the stairs, and stopped in the hall, sitting down on the top step until she felt steadier. Obviously running up from the kitchen had not been the best idea, and she briefly wondered if she was indeed coming down with something though she fervently hoped that was not the case; the first read-through of Norma was on Monday and she did not want to miss it.
There was no sound from within the dining room; pausing outside the door she listened hard, relieved when Angelique said, "I couldn't find the Persian monkey when I left. It was not among your things in the attic and there was no sign in the study..."
"I took it with me," Erik replied quietly after a pause. "I carried it around with me for years."
His mother's voice wavered, as though she were on the verge of tears. "You kept it? All that time? Do you still have it?"
"No. It is... gone. Like the snake charmer."
"You destroyed the snake charmer." Angelique sounded disappointed. "I take it that you did not read my note? I slipped it into the base."
"Strangely enough, it did not occur to me to look," he told her curtly.
"No, I suppose it would not have done."
Silence fell again and Christine waited a moment or two before opening the door. They were sitting just as she had left them but where the tablecloth had been empty of everything but the wine glasses and jug of water an odd little collection of objects was now laid out; she could see a couple of old and curling photographs, some sheaves of paper and a few elderly toys. There were two tin soldiers, battered and peeling; a toy dog with very hardly any fur left and the stuffing leaking out of its stomach; a wooden figure of a man bowling a hoop and a box of chipped and battered glass marbles. With a start Christine realised that these were Erik's childhood belongings, the pitiful few playthings he was allowed. She felt her eyes become damp and surreptitiously tried to brush at them without him seeing.
"Your souvenir box is missing something," Erik remarked, and when his mother regarded him quizzically he tapped his mask. "Or did you think it less than tactful to bring them with you?"
Angelique's brows drew sharply together and anger flashed in her eyes. "I burned them," she snapped. "Every single one."
For once, surprise was clearly visible on Erik's face. He stared at her for a long moment, and she returned his gaze with a fierce one of her own. Eventually, he was the first to look away. "Thank you," he mumbled.
"May I see?" Christine asked, and they both jumped, neither evidently having realised she had entered the room. Angelique looked tired but her face lit up and she beckoned to Christine to sit beside her; as she pulled the papers towards her it became obvious that they were more than just childish scribbles. Amongst the drawings of fantastical buildings and strangely beautiful imaginary creatures were a handful of sketches by a practised hand; Angelique passed one to Christine and Christine could barely contain a gasp, for the sketches were of a child: a baby lying in a crib, and later trying to crawl; a little boy in a sailor suit sitting by a window, his face turned away. Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh! Oh, Erik... is this you?"
"Charles drew them," Angelique said when Erik did not reply. Christine glanced up and saw that he was staring off towards the window, where outside dusk was fast approaching; she could see nothing but the profile of his mask. "I had no idea; he never told me, or showed them to me. He was probably right to do so; I suppose he thought I might destroy them."
Christine looked at the pictures again. They were delicate, in red chalk and charcoal; it was quite incredible that they had survived for so long without being smudged and spoiled. A few carefully-placed lines were all it took to suggest the baby bundled beneath the blankets in his cradle; he was sleeping, little fists bunched, the right side of his face buried in the pillow in that instinctive manner she knew so well. She tried hard to pick out any familiar features but the sketch was lacking in detail; it would seem that Charles Claudin had shied away from documenting his son's differences.
"I can't believe it," she said quietly, unable to resist lightly touching the image of the slumbering child. "I always wondered, even though I knew you had no records of your childhood... I couldn't help wondering what you were like as a little boy. And now I know." She gave Erik a smile, reaching out to take his hand; after a moment he turned to look at her with a tremulous smile of his own. It could not have been easy for him, confronted with his past in this manner after denying it for so long, and she squeezed his fingers encouragingly.
"Would you like to keep them, Christine?" asked Angelique softly.
"Oh, no, I couldn't! These are yours - " Startled, Christine tried to return the pictures but her mother-in-law shook her head, refusing to take them.
"I have no right to them," she said. "If Erik does not wish to have them then they should belong to someone who will cherish them; I am sure that is what Charles would have wanted."
Torn, Christine glanced at her husband. "Erik?"
"Take them, if that is what you wish," he told her, adding in a softer voice, "If you would like to have them, Christine, I can think of no one I would rather have holding the remnants of my childhood in her hands."
There was a lump forming in her throat, and she swallowed against it. "I will treasure them," she promised.
The silence, more comfortable than before, that fell was broken a few moments later by the clock in the hall striking the hour. Angelique counted the chimes and started out of her chair.
"My goodness, how did it get to be so late? I am sorry to have to leave you so abruptly but I must get back to the station before it is too dark to see properly; I don't feel entirely safe walking about alone in the evening these days," she said, looking around her in confusion as though she had forgotten that she left her things with Chloe when she arrived.
"It's all right," Christine assured her, hurrying to stand as well. Her head swam again but she ignored it. "We'll fetch you a cab; there is a stand just down the road."
"Indeed," Erik agreed, much to her delight. "There is no need for you to walk all that way."
His mother looked touched, but she shook her head. "I am quite capable of walking there. These old bones still have some life left in them."
"You were feeling unwell earlier, and it has become very chill of late," Christine pointed out. "It is no trouble; I'll just - " She started to head for the door, but stopped when her stomach heaved. Her vision clouded and she quickly clapped a hand over her mouth, fighting back the nausea. Oh, no, not now... She blinked rapidly but her eyes refused to focus; almost instinctively she turned towards Erik to seek support and the room seemed to spin around her.
"Christine?" There was a flash of white in her peripheral vision that she realised belatedly must be his mask. "Christine!"
She managed to croak out his name, bile rising in her throat, and she desperately caught hold of the edge of the table as everything lurched around her. The ceiling whirled overhead and she was quite suddenly falling, hearing Erik's voice, high and tight with anxiety, calling for her. A hand caught hold of her arm as the outside world abruptly faded away to be replaced by nothing at all.